So here’s the thing about romantic relationships: They’re work.
You will hear that a million-billion times in your life, and occasionally you’ll congratulate yourself for doing that work: putting up with your partner’s shit, contributing to the pot, preventing your home life from devolving into chaos, keeping the relationship fresh and exciting, enduring your in-laws, and so on.
My wife and I celebrated our 11-year anniversary last month. We’ve been together for 17 years now. Here is a list of ways we (I, mostly) have fucked up all the work described above:
- Responding to each other’s various neuroses with frustration or disregard
- Taking genuinely hurtful passive-aggressive postures over total bullshit
- Losing jobs
- Half-assing the search for a new job
- Spending money we do not have on dumb things without consulting each other
- Turning various rooms in our home into goddamn pigsties, despite earnest pleas from the other to keep some semblance of order
- Thinking and saying genuinely unkind things about mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t share my last name
- Whittling the nightly TV-viewing options all the way down to the same eight episodes of Futurama or Wizards basketball without the remotest concern for her preferences
- Falling out of shape to such a degree that a new wardrobe is required
- Doing everything short of staging a sit-in to avoid having to be sociable with friends
- So, so much more
Some of those breaches are dumb (she has learned to appreciate Futurama and tolerate Wizards basketball, which means I can take credit for broadening her horizons as I sit in a sauce-splattered T-shirt in a living room that looks like a tornado swept through), and at least one is critical (being irritable about your partner’s hangups is a fucking killer), but all of these will, at least occasionally, lead to an ugly fight. What I’ve learned is that the key to those fights is to never just walk away.
Right, so, inevitably, at times your partner is going to get fed up with you leaving the goddamn kitchen a mess after you cook something. And just as inevitably, at times you’ll find yourself sitting at a table crowded with your partner’s shit while you’re trying to eat what you cooked. And in this hilarious little half-comic setup, your partner is going to groan about the sink, and you’re going to clap back about the table, and several months’ worth of pent-up angst and work frustration and car trouble and whatever else is gonna rocket forth, and you will have a fight. Hurtful things will be said. There will be escalation. Soon, it will be verging on a blowout.
Fights happen! They’re actually essential to a good relationship! Fighting is venting. Everyone needs to vent, and venting requires a safe space, and it turns out there is no safer space than right up in the face of your partner. And besides, you have very real pet peeves and hangups and sticking points, and those things are bound to cause friction.
Cathartic benefits notwithstanding, your instinct will be to end the fight quickly, for any number of reasons. It’s dumb. You’re hurt. You’re not getting what you need from the exchange beyond the initial rush of catharsis. You’re hoping that if you just cut it off, sooner or later, tempers will cool and emotional bruises will heal and you two will remember you love each other and everything will be fine. And so your instinct will be to take brisk, dismissive action to bring it to an end. Maybe your style is to throw up your hands and walk away, or hang up the phone. Maybe you’re a Know what? Let’s drop it kinda person. Or maybe you are practiced at throwing down enough heat that the argument becomes especially dumb and personal and toxic, triggering a response like I hate it when you get like this or You always have an answer for everything.
Don’t do any of those things, ever. Each time you bust up a fight without resolution, you are doing real damage to your relationship.
Here’s how that works: The fight ends in a harrumph, and the two of you spend an uncomfortable night laying silently next to each other (or, worse yet, one of you is banished to the couch) until you each drift off into fitful sleep. The next morning, all the good shit about sharing your life with this person—a few minutes of half-sleep in each other’s arms, a bathroom chat while one of you showers and the other brushes their teeth, maybe just a quick hug as you head out the door—will be crowded out and poisoned by the lingering resentment and frustration and hurt feelings. You will both shower in silence. Your goodbyes will be fraught, and sound more like questions.
Me, I like to walk in the door at the end of each workday and feel safe and loved and accepted. My marriage is full of these little affirmations: a comfortable drive to the grocery store with her hand on my knee, or the right to bury my face in her hair while she’s surfing the web, or the million funny little code words between us. Or the ironclad certainty that me hunching my back a certain way will summon her to scratch along my spine. So good. That quiet, unspoken binding is what keeps you warm and grounded in your love for this person.
But if you let your fight end without resolution, the next time you come home, instead of feeling safe and accepted and loved, you will feel uncertain. The binding will be frayed. You may, for the first time, hope that your partner is not home. This will be horrible. There is no sadder and lonelier feeling on earth than the particular kind of weird alienation that springs up between two people who know, dammit, that they love each other, but they can’t seem to orient themselves in such a way that the love connects.
So! Your mission is to do whatever you can to prevent these distances from building up, and the way to do that is to insist upon hanging in there and fixing each wound as it opens, while it’s still fresh and spurting (gross). And if you thought doing the dishes was tough work, buddy, you have no idea.
Here’s what you are going to say, just as soon as the fight is reaching the point when one or both of you are ready to hang up or storm off or otherwise put a hard stop on the thing: You are going to take a huge breath, swallow your next searing retort, and say, “I love you, and I can’t stand the idea of leaving things on these terms, even for a little while. Please, let’s work this out before we do anything else, okay?” Storming off is tantamount to failure—that is the lesson—so you’ve got to convince yourselves to ride it out.
I’ve found that adopting this as a personal rule—I personally will have failed if my wife spends an hour of her life alone and miserable because I was too dug in to help bring us back together—can often short-circuit my manly need to be in the right. And even with my need to Win and Be Right All the Time cranking at full power, and even with all my hurt feelings over things she’s said to me from within her own damned entrenchment, I will remember that there are more important things at stake than my dumb pride, and I will stop marching around the room like Napoleon.
And then I will say, “Please don’t walk away. Let’s sit here together and hold hands and figure this thing out.”
So much of being good to someone is trying to be good. And what usually ends whatever dumb fight you’re having is your sincere vow to try and do better in the aftermath. I want to do the hard work, right now, of keeping our relationship healthy, and fixing this wound is more important than whatever I was just shouting about. Yes, I am signing you up for some very late nights. This will be considerably harder, in the short term, than storming off in a huff. I said it was work, assholes.
It’s not quite the same thing as apologizing, though by signaling that the sanctity of your relationship is more important than whether you emerge as champion, you will be communicating all of what is meaningful about an apology, anyway. I recognize the damage done by this exchange, and I’m invested in repairing it. More often than not, that gesture will cool things down, and you can navigate together the tricky terrain that comes before the part where you both actually do apologize, and mean it. Your fight will become an opportunity to recommit to a common purpose. The resolution of your fight will be an actual shared victory! Hug it out, guys. For starters.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.